Posted on March 17, 2006

Exodus of Africans to Europe Stirs Crisis

Ahmed Mohammed, AP, March 16, 2006

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — African migrants desperate to escape the world’s poorest continent are streaming through Mauritania to embark on a perilous ocean voyage to Europe that has already killed hundreds.

The exodus from the desert country on the coast of northwest Africa prompted a call for help Thursday from Mauritania’s prime minister, and European leaders concerned about absorbing the immigrants already on their shores were eager to cooperate.

The situation garnered new international attention this week after Spain said Wednesday that the bodies of 24 people — all apparently from sub-Saharan Africa — had been discovered in waters off the coast of Mauritania. Spain also intercepted some 400 Africans trying to reach its Canary Islands — a single-day record — in nine overcrowded boats that had set out from Mauritania.

The incidents prompted the Spanish government to send a delegation to Mauritania Thursday for talks on measures to try to slow the rising number of hazardous crossings.

Meanwhile, Spanish officials said 101 African men who set out from Mauritania in two boats reached the Canary Island of Tenerife on Thursday.

More than 1,000 Africans — some driven by hopes of jobs, others to escape their continent’s many wars — have died over the past four months while trying to sail in small wooden boats from Mauritania to the Canary Islands, according to the country’s branch of the Red Crescent.

Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar called on the West to send planes, boats and vehicles to help Mauritania better patrol its borders. He said authorities arrested 3,900 migrants in 2005, and some 1,200 have already been detained this year.